You can see the pool and the court from where Pride is sitting in his living room on an overcast April morning, dutifully posing for photographs. Inside, the house is warm and comfortable and just a tad dated; much of the decor appears to have arrived not long after the Prides did, in 1976. The most recent additions are photos of his three kids (Kraig, Dion, and Angela) and their kids, and various mementos from his life and career. Near where he is sitting is the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award he received in 1994. Lining a hallway a few steps away, and mostly hidden from view, are gold and platinum plaques. On a cabinet near the front door sits a pair of Native American dolls he received for participating in the Phoenix Open. The house doesn’t feel like a trophy case, but it clearly belongs to Charley Pride.
Pride has done photo shoots like this one thousands of times over the years, and, at first, his demeanor reflects that fact. There is little conversation as he turns his face this way and that, smiling, frowning, looking up, down, sideways. When the photographer arrived, Pride balked at the block of time reserved for this, wondering how it could take so long. Now he’s on autopilot.
But he can’t hold his personality in check for long. He perks up when he finds out he and the photographer’s assistant share a birthday. Now he’s talking about astrology, one of his favorite subjects, and his ability to fairly accurately guess people’s birthdays. He’s ready to talk now, about anything and everything. A stray bit of chatter somehow reminds him of the pieces of titanium in his skull, souvenirs from surgery to correct a subdural hematoma. "They told me I’m cured," he says, shrugging.
It’s all stream of consciousness from there. In the next 30 minutes, the generally one-sided chat veers back to astrology, then his kids, then the Negro Leagues, then astrology again, then Burger King commercials, then Louis Armstrong singing country music. By the end, Pride is on his hands and knees in front of his built-in 1970s-era stereo, moving teetering stacks of cassettes and vinyl LPs to show off his eight-track changer, a device similar to a slide projector in appearance and function. It doesn’t look like it has gotten much use recently, but if Pride did want to fire it up, he has plenty of ammunition. Inside one of the unit’s drawers are a dozen or so Charley Pride eight-track tapes. Like I said, this house clearly belongs to Pride.
It took some people on the block a bit longer to figure that out, if you believe local lore. Not long after he moved in, the story goes, Pride was out mowing his lawn. The woman next door, who had not met him yet and didn’t recognize the neighborhood’s new celebrity, pulled up to the yard and asked if he would please cut her grass as well after he finished. He said, sure, no problem. After finishing up both lawns, he went to her door and rang the bell. When she answered, Pride said, "Hi, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Charley Pride, your new neighbor." Or, if you prefer another version, the woman answered the bell and asked what he got to mow a yard. Pride smiled and said, "I get to sleep with the lady of the house."
The story (both versions) is apocryphal. Various incarnations of it have made the rounds over the years, starring everyone from Bill Cosby to Thurgood Marshall. It makes sense that it has been attributed to Pride, because throughout his career he’s handled similar situations with the same genial humor, going all the way back to Detroit in 1966.
It wasn’t common knowledge back then that Pride was black. RCA sent out his music without any photos, and he was even briefly billed as Country Charley Pride to provide further cover. His voice certainly didn’t give him away.
"He had a song out called ’Snakes Crawl at Night,’ and his voice was so indelibly different that I asked somebody, I said, ’Who in the hell is that?’" says Merle Haggard, who is now Pride’s friend. "He opened up my show in Montana, as best I remember. And, of course, we found out that he was black, and I thought, ’Well, look here. We got a black guy that’s got all us boys as heroes, if that ain’t a switch.’ I grew up idolizing [black jazz guitarists] Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian and people like that."
As he started touring more, word did start to filter out. (At one of his early shows, he could hear a woman in the crowd gasp, "He is!") But it hadn’t reached Detroit. Pride was booked on a package show that also featured Dick Curless, Flatt & Scruggs, Haggard, and Buck Owens. It was Pride's first major public appearance; 10,000 people were packed into Olympia Arena.
"I got there about five minutes before going on," Pride says. "The promoter was a little bit nervous anyway. He says, ’Well, Charley, you haven’t rehearsed anything. You don’t have to do the first show if you don’t want to.’ They had a 3 p.m. show and an 8 p.m. show. He said, ’We’ll still pay you.’ I figured if I didn’t do the 3 p.m. show I wouldn’t be doing the 8 p.m. show. He said, ’You haven’t rehearsed.’ I said, ’Well, no, I haven’t rehearsed with the band. But do they play country music?’ He said they did. I said, ’Well, I’ll be ready in two minutes.’" He laughs.
"Ralph Emery was the big emcee on that show. He came up and said, ’What do you want me to say when I bring you on? I mean, we need to say something, you know. You’re going to shock people.’ I said, ’Yeah, been doing it. Just 10,000’s more than three or four hundred. But it’s gonna be the same thing.’ So Ralph Emery came out and said, ’Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a young singer on RCA Records. He’s had three singles’ —and he named them—'"Snakes Crawl at Night," "Before I Met You," and "Just Between You and Me" is going up the charts.’ I got a nice little applause. Probably a few hundred out of the 10,000. But, now, they still don’t know nothing about the pigment, see?
"So he says, 'Right now, from RCA Records, Chaaaarleeeey Priiiiiiide!’ ’YEAAAAAAH!’ I come out in the shadows and the lights and"—he makes a sound like a generator shutting down—"like turning down the volume. You could drop a pin. So what my manager and I came up with was this little saying: 'Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it’s a little unique me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan.' Immediately, they applauded. Because I’m saying exactly what they’re thinking. I’ve only got 10 minutes. I don’t have time to be talking about no pigment. I’ve got to sing."
He ended up signing autographs from the 3 p.m. show until the 8 p.m. show. "And that’s the way it’s been ever since," he says.
• • •
Charley Pride can’t write songs—or never gave it much effort, at any rate. He’s a performer, an interpreter, his Mississippi-mud-coated baritone able to make other people’s words uniquely his own. Hearing "A Shoulder to Cry On" in any voice other than Pride’s is impossible (even though Merle Haggard wrote it and recorded his own version). That’s because Pride can recognize a hit when he hears it, which is how he took ownership of "A Shoulder to Cry On" in the first place.
Haggard was booked for a few shows at Harrah’s casino in Lake Tahoe. At the time, Haggard and Roy Clark were the only country performers who would deign to play casinos. Pride was in the crowd when Haggard debuted the song, which he had written during his Tahoe engagement. Haggard liked to do that—write something up, bring it to the boys at rehearsal, then work it into the set that night. What happened next, though, was unusual. After Haggard and the band ran through "A Shoulder to Cry On," Pride stood up, right there in front of everyone, and asked Haggard if he could have that song.
"And I said, ’You can, it’s yours,’" Haggard says, laughing at the memory. "Oh, his version’s great. You know, it was kind of like it was written for him."
Though he leaves songwriting to others, Pride can definitely tell a story. He’s a "tangential talker," he admits, prone to making side trips, quick rest stops, and a few wrong turns—he’s old enough to refer to the latter as "senior moments"—before reaching his destination.
For example, while walking out to one of the practice fields in Surprise, Pride told me a long, funny story ostensibly about losing his luggage on the way to Ireland the week prior. It included at least three separate but (more or less) related anecdotes and a brief lesson on why one would be best served trusting his instincts regarding the vagaries of air travel. I won’t—can’t, really—recount the entire saga here, so let’s just say Pride has an uncanny ability to predict when and where his baggage will turn up, and leave it at that.
More pertinent is Pride’s chronicle of the long and winding road leading to his photo being taken with the late Jerry Falwell at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. (Which, incidentally, Pride related to me while waiting in the airport for his luggage’s ill-fated trip to Ireland.)
Pride’s tangential talking led us to his acquaintance with "41 and 43"—Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush—and his appearance at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Since he mentioned he’d also played many rounds of golf with Gerald Ford ("I loved that guy"), I ask him the obvious follow-up: does he consider himself more of a Republican or a Democrat? He is, after all, in an interesting position: his tax bracket and fan base would seem to put him squarely in the Republican camp, but his race and upbringing skew decidedly Democrat.
"I’m for the man," he says. "I like who I like. But I don’t align myself with any party. See, I’ve got Democratic fans, and I’ve got Republican fans. The minute I do one over the other, it’s gonna split it right down the middle." It’s an answer that mirrors Michael Jordan’s famous line about why he chose not to use his considerable heft to back North Carolina senator Jesse Helms’ opponent in an election: "Republicans buy shoes, too."
He had been turning down invitations to appear at the respective parties' national conventions for years. But Pride told his booking agent that if he could arrange it so the singer could attend both in the same year, he would do it. It finally happened in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was up for reelection against a ticket of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.
"The Democrats had theirs first," he begins. "I go out to San Francisco. They say it’s gonna be prime time: 'You’re gonna do it right in prime time.' Let’s see, it’s 4 p.m. back in New York, right? I’m looking out on that convention center, and you can shoot a cannon through there and you ain’t hit nobody. 'Oh, say, can you see...' I do the anthem, and that’s prime time, right? I get back home, and I hear nothing about it. Nobody says nothing about nothing."
Then it was time for the Republican convention. They didn’t ask him to sing the national anthem. They were much slyer. Cy Lawther—"this guy I knew, who ran a golf tournament I played in, who had a bunch of defense contracts"—invited Pride out to eat with Vice President Bush. (Tangential talking: the dinner happened at a Mexican restaurant on Oak Lawn, the name of which escapes him. He does, however, recall it was located next to a furniture store run by the father of Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson’s harmonica player.) Pride didn’t realize the hook had already been set.